Police have warned against a predicted spike in hate crime upon the expected British exit from the European Union in March, mirroring the rise initially seen after the referendum in 2016. As unfortunate as this may be, it would be wrong to tarnish those that voted leave or the Brexit project as a whole for the crimes of a tiny minority.
Needless to say, neither the official leave campaign nor any of its leading figures endorsed or called for any upcoming increase in hate crime, assuming the predictions are correct. Although the idea that the rhetoric surrounding Brexit has emboldened the perpetrators doesn’t seem implausible, emboldening is not the same as carrying responsibility. The specifics of Brexit are not even particularly important here. In principle, short of actually calling for a specific action, we cannot allow the reputations of any group or individual to be held hostage by what somebody else may do as a result of their behaviour.
Rhetoric is not directly responsible for violence unless it advocates violence. A necessary part of maintaining functional discussion within a democracy is holding one another responsible for what has actually been said. No more, no less. This means we have to be honest about each other’s intentions. It is not the fault of those who voted to exit the European Union that some fringe individuals took advantage of their language to commit crimes they do not support. The fact remains that hate crime is viewed as unequivocally evil by an overwhelming majority in society. None of Brexit’s leading proponents, nor the campaign as a whole, called for any such action and would certainly condemn it. It is simply wrong to hold people responsible for events they did not wish nor call for.
Furthermore, the kind of reasoning that would hold Brexit’s proponents responsible for this rise in crime has no principled limitation. Blurring the lines between words and violence in this way gets us into some dangerously censorious territory and would unjustly punish some for the moral shortcomings of others. So whilst it’s important that anybody responsible for such crimes be brought to justice, constructing long chains of guilt extending beyond the actual perpetrator is unfair and counterproductive. And as detestable as hate crimes are, they reflect the moral shortcomings of their perpetrators alone, not the overall Brexit project nor any of its advocates.
Nevertheless, as a result of these predictions, the Metropolitan Police have stated they would be ‘carrying out proactive work with community groups’ to try and deter potential offenders. Regrettably, it would appear that the nature of hate crime means little can be done to prevent such attacks. Obviously the ‘hate’ component of the term hate crime refers to a motive rather than the physical nature of the act. If preventing regular crimes is hard enough, preventing hate crime is even harder. There’s no real way to check a prejudicial motive without climbing into the minds of a potential suspect to “check their thinking.” This is obviously not a feasible option. As such, the best our student unions or us as individuals can do is report any incidents we encounter and trust our judicial system to prosecute those responsible to the full extent of the law.
Image: Duncan Hull via Flickr